NOTE: My guest blogger this week is Garrett Rittenberg. He wrote this powerful response to the recent events in Egypt and Libya, a piece that really stopped me in my tracks and made me think about our First Amendment Rights – Freedom of Speech. I hope it makes everybody stop and think. – JZ
Eleven years after 9/11, religious fanatics have again decided to attack America.
This time it is the American Embassies in Cairo and Benghazi that are the targets. In Cairo, Egypt, protesters jumped the embassy wall and removed the American flag replacing it with a black flag that says in Arabic: “There is No God but Allah.” They proceeded to vandalize the building, to what end we do not yet know. Earlier in the day, the threat of attack had prompted diplomatic personnel to vacate the facility.
In Benghazi, Libya, four embassy staff, including the Ambassador, were unable to get out of the path of another set of attackers. They were killed. Among the apparent reasons for the attack: a protest against a US-made film produced by an Egyptian anti-Muslim activist. Clips from the film, which insult the Prophet Muhammad, were posted on YouTube. The reactions in Cairo and Benghazi are an ominous repeat of the similarly overheated response to the publication of unflattering Danish cartoons portraying Muhammad in 2005.
The embassy in Cairo quickly released a statement condemning the violence of the protesters, but it went on to condemn “efforts to offend believers of all religions,” an alarming statement that effectively threw the filmmaker under the bus by silently conceding that beliefs are more important than rights – particularly the first amendment to the constitution.
In that one stroke, the embassy became an apologist for its attackers and failed to defend a core American value: freedom of speech, which includes the right to offend.
Yes, our mission was under attack in what is obviously a strongly religious country, and yes, we can assume that this abandonment of American principles was, first and foremost, an effort to calm the crowds for a while. Yet we cannot allow it to be official American policy to condemn films that disagree with a given religion …even if they do offend people in another country.
It is weak stances on our most important rights like Freedom of Speech, such as the one the Cairo embassy has taken, that gave us such problems in the first place. One reason these sorts of groups thrive is that efforts to challenge or disagree with their beliefs are condemned by people who should know better: people are either apologists for such cowardly actions, or who confuse criticizing a belief with criticizing the right to believe. There is a crucial difference, and it involves freedom of speech.
In America, if we are unable to understand the meaning and importance of the First Amendment of our own Constitution, then there is no point arguing about much else. We must understand that rights are far more important than beliefs. Rights come first, because they are what enables belief. Our rights are sacred and our beliefs are not, because beliefs can change with the wind, whereas rights are the cornerstone of everything worth doing. In America, freedom of speech comes before freedom of any other kind, because it is freedom of speech that enables us to challenge anything that has power or seeks control over us, whether it be a government or a violent mob of “believers” in Cairo and Benghazi.
A day after the attack, President Obama gave us America’s official stance on the
issue. He rightly condemned the violence, but shamefully went on to condemn the film’s denigration of religion. By taking the same stance as the embassy in Cairo, he decided to forego defending the filmmaker’s right to free expression. This is wrong. It will lead only to more events similar to the embassy attacks and the attack of eleven years ago.
If politicians and citizens alike continue to take such cowardly positions on such an
important issue, then we have no good reason to be surprised when
diplomats are killed, or when another building – or another right — is reduced to rubble.